For some, a successful career unfolds neatly and easily, with few complications; for others, it has to be fought for every step of the way. Alick Kambenja’s inspiring story confirms the saying that it’s never too late to be the person you’ve always wanted to be.

What did you want to do on leaving school?

When I left high school in Solwezi in 1995, I actually had dreams of becoming a doctor. My dad had diabetes, which inspired me to work at finding solutions to such problems. But I’m from a poor family, and there was no money to go to college or university. So, my main focus was on just getting a job that would sustain me, and perhaps at a later stage into further education.

What job opportunities were there in Solwezi at the time?

Virtually none. When I finished high school, Kansanshi Mine was being run by ZCCM, and they had just closed it; there wasn’t anything left. It was really just civil servants and people working for ZESCO who were in formal employment. There were just one or two banks. The town was known as Solwezi Mwabanga, which means you only see life in the evening! If you wanted a job, you went to Copperbelt or Lusaka.

What happened then?

A high school friend of mine from the Copperbelt returned home and began working on the mines there. He became a trainee, and after a couple of years, the mine sponsored him to do a degree at Copperbelt University. On hearing that, my whole perception changed. He inspired me.

There was no work in Solwezi; you had to go to Lusaka or the Copperbelt

So, you decided to do the same thing?

Yes. I was in Lusaka at the time, looking for a job. I decided to come back to Solwezi because First Quantum Minerals had now acquired Kansanshi. There was suddenly a reverse migration, as people flocked to Solwezi to take advantage of the employment opportunities the mine had created. It completely revived the town. All the banks you could think of were suddenly there. Kansanshi was hiring in 2005, and I got in.

What was your first job?

I started at the bottom, driving a 40-tonne ADT – that’s an Articulated Dump Truck. I then moved to heavier trucks, and eventually to a 150-tonne Caterpillar. The years went by, and I also operated heavy machinery down in the pit – wheeldozers, loaders and excavators.

That’s a lot of operating experience.

Yes. It helped, and I was singled out and made a shift boss. Over the years, I moved up to Mine Captain, and then became an Optimisation Coordinator.

It sounds as if you were on a roll.

I am very privileged. I got a letter from the mine saying they would sponsor me to do my first mining course – a diploma in mining from Derby University in the UK. A few years after successfully completing that, in 2016, I was appointed Mining Production Superintendent, my current position. But the mine thought that a diploma wasn’t enough, and this year, they told me they would pay for me to do a degree programme at Derby University. I can tell you, I am a very happy man!

How do you manage to do all this studying part-time?

You know, it’s all about the goal, the zeal – if you’ve got the drive to study and work, you can do it.

What drives you?

What drives me is when I see where I’ve come from. I’m the only person in my family with a decent job at the moment. And I have the opportunity to go even further. You read to lead – the more you study, the greater your chances to get to a better position.

What do you like most about mining?

I love the dynamism, the technology, the innovation. Modern mining is very different from what it was in the old days. They say that from 2020, they’ll even be mining asteroids in space!

How has mining changed your personal life?

Before I got into mining, I didn’t have a career; now I do. I used to be a tenant. Now, through the good wages I’ve earned, I’ve managed to build myself two houses, one of which I’m renting out. I’ve been exposed to other countries and cultures through my work. I’ve been able to take the family on vacation to South Africa and Dubai.

What do your parents think of everything you’ve accomplished?

I’m the second-born in a family of nine. When I finish my degree, I’ll be the first one in the family to have done it, so they are very proud.

See also: So you’ve got a degree? Big deal!